Demonstrators laying siege to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad began to disperse as security personnel fired tear gas Wednesday in the second day of unrest after U.S. airstrikes killed at least two dozen Iran-backed fighters in Iraq.
Protesters began packing up a makeshift camp outside the embassy by Wednesday afternoon under orders from Kataeb Hezbollah militia leaders, who called the demonstration a win for the group’s fight to expel U.S. troops from Iraq.
The protest broke out Tuesday as demonstrators shouting “Death to America!” smashed their way into the embassy compound and set fire to a reception area. The Pentagon said it rushed reinforcements to the embassy, and attack helicopters swooped over the complex.
The mob retreated from the compound Tuesday evening and camped out in tents overnight, setting up a makeshift clinic and serving meals out of pots. Dozens of yellow flags belonging to Iran-backed Shiite militias fluttered atop the reception area and were plastered along the embassy’s concrete wall along with anti-U.S. graffiti.
U.S. guards had fired tear gas to drive back the crowd, and soldiers manned the roof of the main building, their guns pointed at the protesters. Iraqi forces that guard the usually safe Green Zone where the embassy is located did little to stop the chaos.
Anti-government protesters have been trying to enter the Green Zone for weeks, but have been beaten back by security forces, who have killed hundreds of demonstrators.
The State Department said all embassy personnel were safe and that no evacuation was planned.
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The U.S. reinforcements included about 100 Marines, a U.S. military official who was not authorized to speak publicly told USA TODAY.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the airstrikes as a “decisive response” to a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor last week.
President Donald Trump, on Twitter, accused Iran of orchestrating the embassy attack.
“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump tweeted. “They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”
In another tweet, Trump called Tuesday’s incident the “Anti-Benghazi.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticized the U.S. airstrikes on the Iran-backed Iraqi militia on Sunday. In an apparent reference to Trump’s allegations of Iranian involvement, Khamenei said in remarks carried by a semi-official news agency that “if the Islamic Republic makes a decision to confront any country, it will do it directly,” according to the Associated Press.
The Pentagon, in defending the airstrikes, cited repeated attacks by the Kataeb Hezbollah militia on Iraqi bases. The “defensive” airstrikes targeted three sites in Iraq and two in Syria that included weapon storage facilities and command and control locations, the military said.
Kataeb Hezbollah operates under the umbrella of state-sanctioned militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Most of them are supported by Iran. The Iranian-backed Iraqi militia vowed Monday to retaliate for the U.S. military strikes.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY; The Associated Press